Limpopo. Early evening in the lowveld. She is out hunting. Her cubs are hungry and she needs food fast. But as she races after her prey, the savage jaws of a steel trap spring shut and imprison her leg.
The farmer is delighted. He will shoot her and his sheep will now be safe. But the farmer’s wife has read that Ann van Dyk of the Cheetah Centre in the Magaliesberg is offering a reward for live wild cheetahs.
And so Sibella’s journey back to freedom begins.
Badly injured, Sibella, then about two or three years old – not even the vets could accurately guess her age – was brought to the newly established Samara Private Game Reserve in the middle of the Great Karoo, by owners Sarah and Mark Tomkins. She was nursed back to health by a dedicated team, released on to 28 000ha of indigenous bush, and today has become the star of the show.
Since 2003, when she first came to Samara, Sibella has successfully raised four litters of cubs – 20 in all – and in so doing has contributed 2 percent of South Africa’s cheetah population.
I first encountered Sibella six years ago. My late husband, Alan, and I had long wanted to visit Samara. Not only because we had heard about Sibella, but also because we were both lovers of the Karoo, where horizons are limitless, mountains are etched against impossibly pure air, and stars burn at night.
We tracked her for hours, and finally found her resting on a mountain-side with two young cubs. She was a beautiful cat.
Fast forward to November last year. I’m again visiting Samara, with friend and colleague Coral Reynolds. Etienne Oosthuizen, superb guide and wildlife photographer supreme, warns us before we start the game drive that we may have some heavy tracking and climbing ahead. It’s a bright Karoo morning, “green and golden” as Dylan Thomas once wrote about another lovely place, and our open game vehicle takes off just after dawn to find the legendary Sibella.
We stop only a couple of kilometres from Karoo Lodge where we are staying, as Etienne climbs on to the bonnet of the vehicle and waves the radio transmitter around. Sibella is collared, so she can be monitored. “Beep, beep, beep” – unbelievably, the transmitter has picked up a signal. No climbing, no hiking through the bush, no scrambling up a mountainside – there she is lying right by the road with her two 18-month-old cubs dozing by her side. They have had a successful hunt – possibly a kudu because their bellies are very full – and are now resting, panting, and regaining the energy they have lost in the swift chase.
The slender, rather slight cheetah I remembered of six years ago is now a magnificent fully mature animal with powerful shoulders and a strong body.
Etienne tells us that she still limps sometimes after a chase or a hunt – the steel trap left its mark. We walk silently along the road up to a few metres away from the cats, and watch in wonder.
Another day, we drive up a mountainside – literally. Heaven only knows what the gradient is but we cling to our seats as we rattle, bounce and jerk up and over a stony road that seems to go on forever.
But when we finally reach the top of the mountain, the rocky ride was worth it.
Sweeping plains dotted with Cape mountain zebra, blue wildebeest and herds of skittish blesbok stretch away as far as the eye can see. Nearby, a small flock of blue cranes struts by amid fresh green grass and clumps of wild flowers. We walk to the edge of this mountain plateau, and in front of us the great plains of Camdeboo unfold to the horizon.
Samara Private Game Reserve lies just 20km southeast of Graaf-Rienet in the Eastern Cape and stretches from the heights of the Karoo mountain complex, part of the Great Escarpment, down into the sweeping plains typical of this unique area. It includes four of South Africa’s seven biomes, and is slowly being restored to its former pristine state.
Once upon a time, before the settlers came in the early 1800s, this land teemed with game – rhinos, buffalo, cheetah, elephant, lion and eland. The story goes that when the millions of springbok were migrating on the plains of Camdeboo, they kicked up such a cloud of dust that it took days to dissipate.
We are staying at Karoo Lodge, where a 250-year-old farmhouse with wide verandahs and floors polished over the years by thousands of feet, overlooks green lawns where large leopard tortoises amble about nibbling the grass. Their ancient eyes must have seen much over the years – farmers’ wives baking bread, making soap, trying to raise a family in this lovely, but harsh, landscape. Those long gone families have now been replaced by guests who come to Samara from far and wide. We share stories with a young Swiss couple and a retired English couple, both new visitors to Samara, but who are already resolved to return.
The staff – some of whom have been here for many years – are delightful and friendly, the food is superb, and the accommodation in the cottages that have been built in the bush a short walk away from the farmhouse, is superb. We chat with Rob Bruyns, who looks after the volunteer programme. He tells us that volunteers come from all over the world to work here, aged anything from 18 to 75.
Quite by chance, I’m here six years to the day since Alan and I stayed here, and am sleeping in the same cottage.
That night, as the moon rises, the Karoo wind rattles around the windows, and planet Venus blazes in the sky opposite my stoep, an owl begins to call.
And its soft hooting continues well into the night.
It’s a good job I don’t believe in ghosts…
* Samara Private Game Reserve
Tel: 049 891 0880